Clever Solution: Crows Are Cleaning City Streets – a Dutch Startup Is Training Them to Pick up Cigarette Butts in Exchange for Treats

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Top Tier Gear USA

A new Dutch startup called “Crowded Cities” is training crows to recognize and pick up cigarette butts in exchange for treats, effectively cleaning up the city streets and parks.

The crows would drop the cigarette butts into a “Crowbar” device, which then scans the piece of litter to confirm that it is a cigarette butt. Once confirmed, the device gives the crow a food reward, reinforcing the behavior.

The inception of the bizarre project was inspired by a fateful meeting of project founders—interaction designer Ruben van der Vleuten, and experiment designer Bob Spikman – with a man named Joshua Klein, who was teaching crows to collect coins.

The Crowbar is the device developed by “Crowded Cities” designed to train crows to pick up and deposit cigarette butts. A crow drops a cigarette filter onto the device’s funnel, where a camera scans it. After the camera recognizes the item as a filter, it releases a piece of food for the crow to pick up as a reward. The crow then flies off to find more cigarette butts and recruit more crows to participate.

About 4.5 trillion cigarettes are littered each year around the globe. Discarded cigarette butts are a form of non-biodegradable litter, according to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. During rainfall, these litter are carried off from the streets to the drains, rivers, and the oceans. Aquatic life then come across these trash and mistake the highly toxic matter for food. There have also been instances of children swallowing them.

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Testing the intelligence of birds

In a recent study, New Caledonian crows and kea parrots in captivity were observed as they manipulated and explored different objects that would help them get a desired reward.

In the experiment, the birds were tasked to unlock feeding devices by using different tools and actions. Seven birds were divided into a component group (three crows) and an innovation group (four crows). The component group was given 10 trials, broken down into six tasks, to familiarize them with the controlled environment of the experiment before the actual testing. The innovation group was also given 10 trials, but with only four tasks—the last two were omitted to observe how the birds would figure them out. All three crows from the component group solved the problem without error on their first recorded trial, while two crows from the innovation group did the same.

Through repeated interaction and exploration, the subjects were able to recognize steps and patterns and selected the correct tools, demonstrating complex cognition and innovative behavior.

The research reveals that certain bird species are capable of learning how to navigate through controlled surroundings through interaction with objects, and later use the new understanding to their benefit. (Related: If someone calls you “bird brain” it may be a compliment: Researchers found that pigeons are better at multitasking than humans.)

In another study, the researchers have found that corvids (crows, ravens, magpies) and parrots reach the same level of mental complexity and diversity as in apes. This might explain the basis of the birds’ cognitive skills, as they show similar brain organizations as in mammals.

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